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Passions high at packed Howard County 'sanctuary' hearing

A microcosm of the national immigration debate flared in Howard County's packed government chambers Tuesday night as more than 500 community members staked a divided stand on a bill that would label Howard County as a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

Although the bill does little to change local law enforcement's current relationship with undocumented immigrants, the bill drew a divided public Tuesday night.

County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein frequently interrupted testimony to call on the audience to refrain from applause, laughter and overall discord. Back and forth between two council members prompted Weinstein to call for a 10-minute recess.

The debate veered between two extremes: opponents said the bill invites undocumented residents to Howard County at the expense of possibly stripping federal funding, while supporters said the bill was a principled stand on behalf of undocumented immigrants in a county that champions and celebrated diversity. Others dismissed the bill as political grandstanding and questioned its preface clauses, which call out President-elect Donald Trump and frame the bill as a response to address racism and other concerns.

Opponents, clad in red, held large, printed signs that read, "No CB-9" and "diversity yes, illegal no"; while supporters held flimsy 8 x 11-inch sheets that read, "Yes." Pamphlets sponsored by the local Republican committee that read "Weinstein: oath of office or law breaker" lay on distant desks in the building.

More than 300 people packed the building's main hearing room as around 120 people waited outside to give testimony. One overflow room was at the brim as residents shouted "yes" and "no" in a passionate show of opinion 20 minutes before the hearing began.

Proposed by council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, in response to Trump's presidency, the bill formally states county employees, including police, will not voluntarily participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law, but does not change the ability of police to investigate violators of criminal law. Federal and state law would also preempt the local designation.

The bill drew passionate testimony on immigration policy and created a forum to discuss qualms of a Trump presidency.

Some members of the Asian community took a strong, vocal position against the bill as well, which some said threatens the safety and security of immigrants who arrived in the country legally.

Jean Xu, who immigrated from China more than 20 years ago, said the bill polarized the community, instead of attempting to reunite it.

"The message in the bill appears to be that if we don't agree with your position, then we must be xenophobic, islamophobic and a bigot," Xu said. "This kind of narrative divides up and tears up our community."

Both sides invoked Howard County Library System's public campaign, "Choose Civility" in testimony. Opponents said the bill addresses a problem that does not exist in the affluent county while supporters said the bill was evidence of the Choose Civility campaign.

Weinstein repeatedly pleaded for the audience to maintain civility during the hearing.

Calling undocumented immigrants "illegal invaders," Jeff Underwood said the "asinine" bill could pave the way for degrading the education system and devaluing property values. "I will discriminate against anyone who is here illegally," Underwood said.

FAIR, an advocacy group that stands for Federation for American Immigration Reform, also opposed the measure, raising concerns about increased illegal activity and loosening relationships between federal and local law enforcement authorities.

"Do we really want MS-13 gangs setting up shop in Howard County, like they have in other sanctuary counties?" said Del. Warren Miller, a Republican.

Trump has vowed to strip the roughly 300 sanctuary jurisdictions around the country of federal funding — a fear raised throughout the hearing.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner opposed the legislation, which he said compromises the strong partnerships his department has with federal law enforcement, citing that the county's crackdown on the MS-13 gang from Central America relied on those relationships.

"We treat everyone the same regardless of their status," Gardner said.

Ball pressed Gardner for specific examples of how law enforcement's current agreements and relationships would be impacted.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican, reminded proponents that the discussion was not about legal immigrants — only undocumented immigrants.

As of 1 a.m. on Wednesday, around 271 people had signed up to testify about the bill; roughly 105 testifying in support and 83 opposed. The remaining were undecided or undeclared.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has pledged to veto the measure if it crosses his desk, citing the bill as political grandstanding that threatens critical federal funding and provides a false sense of security to undocumented residents.

Earlier that evening, representatives from the faith community who are part of People Acting Together for Howard pressed Kittleman to champion diversity by posing an alternative proposal that would support undocumented residents.

"So what should be done with the thousands of undocumented immigrants living as our neighbors, attending our schools, worshiping side by side with us? Should we turn a blind eye to them, and pretend that they do not exist?" said the Rev. Paige Getty.

In personal testimony, Hector Garcia, executive director of Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, a nonprofit organization that works with immigrants and refugees, spoke on behalf of undocumented immigrants and others who are living in fear of a Trump presidency, and urged both sides to listen openly to each other, adding that his organization applauds the work of the county and local law enforcement.

"Unfortunately, many of those who FIRN serves are afraid to be here tonight and have their voices heard," Garcia said. "That is why the 'sanctuary' legislation is so important to them. The concept of a 'sanctuary' has been part of history for thousands of years.

"I appreciate that the word 'sanctuary' can mean different things to different people," Garcia said. "What it means for FIRN's clients is a life without fear."

The council could vote on the bill Feb. 6.

This story has been updated.

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